We are saddened to report the untimely death of Dr Deborah Turbitt, London Deputy Director of Health Protection for the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA). Deborah died peacefully, at Homerton University Hospital, after deteriorating rapidly whilst being treated for oesophageal cancer.
Deborah was born in Hexham, Northumberland and spent her childhood in Whickham and later Marley Hill in Co Durham. She attended Lanchester Comprehensive, Dame Allan’s Girls School before studying at Middlesex Hospital Medical School where she qualified in 1986.
Deborah initially trained in hospital medicine in London, including being on duty at St George’s on the day of the Clapham rail disaster. However, in the mid-nineties she took stock, successfully applied for Public Health training, and never looked back.
During her public health training in London, Deborah developed an interest in communicable disease control and her first consultant role was as a consultant in communicable disease control (CCDC) for the old East London and the City Health Authority. This was one of the building blocks of the North East London Health Protection Unit (HPU), part of the Health Protection Agency and Deborah became the CCDC for the City of London with responsibilities for Port Health for the Port of London. The HPU expanded, taking on responsibility for North Central London. Deborah became its Director and, in time, the Regional Director for the Health Protection Agency in London. She transferred into Public Health England as one of the Deputy Directors for PHE London in 2013.
Deborah was a trusted leader, valued for her calm authority, expertise and skills which she used to great effect to tackle the many high profile challenges that London has faced. It is not an exaggeration to say that Deborah was at the forefront of the health protection responses to the biggest incidents in London in the last twenty years: from the first London bombings in 2005, through the Litvinenko poisoning, the 2009 flu pandemic, the preparation and response for the 2012 Olympics, Ebola and the health screening at London international borders, further terrorist attacks, the aftermath of the Grenfell fire and recently so closely involved in both the national and regional response to COVID-19. She not only dealt with the professional public health response but was a great communicator with the general public and was seen frequently in the media.
The tributes to Deborah, from colleagues in many organisations nationally and locally, have emphasised her professionalism and her sense of public duty. The warm messages for Deborah have also highlighted the time that Deborah would take to ensure those working with her knew that they were valued, that she enabled colleagues to develop and supported them through both the good and the more challenging times. All this was done quietly, alongside her more obvious external facing work. Many have said “I wouldn’t be here without Deborah”.
Away from work, Deborah was an inveterate knitter, keen walker, a woman with a strong Catholic faith who worked tirelessly for her church community too and, most importantly, was devoted to her family. She was married to Matthew for 32 years and they have raised four children, now adults in their twenties and a credit to her legacy. She is also survived by her mother, her sister and one of her brothers.
Deborah’s funeral was held on 12th August at the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption in Bethnal Green. The family has requested that any donations for Deborah should go to Cancer Research UK.
There will be a celebration of Deborah’s professional life during the autumn and there are plans to create a Faculty of Public Health Deborah Turbitt memorial prize.